DISCLAIMER: We have borrowed this extensive breakdown of Afghanistan from International Institute St. Louis. This is not a reflection of our own work; rather, it is offered to you as a resource we found incredibly useful from an organization we highly respect. Because these are not our own words, we ask that you only use this information as a means to getting a broadly-painted picture of the worlds from which our clients come. Please do not use this information as anything other than the first steps in a long process of understanding.

We suggest that you not assume everything written here pertains to the family or individual with whom you work. Broad generalities help us understand backgrounds, but they should not dictate how we see our clients.


ETHNIC GROUPS: Pashtun (42%), Tajik (27%), Hazara (9%), Uzbek (9%), Aimak (4%), Turkmen (3%), and

Baloch (2%).

HISTORY: Afghanistan gained independence from UK control over foreign affairs in August 1921. In the time following independence, Afghanistan’s leader, Amanullah Khan, initiated a series of ambitious efforts at social and political modernization. Unrest brought an overthrow of the government by Nadir Khan, who abolished these modernization measures. His son took control after Nadir Khan’s assassination and declared Afghanistan neutral in WWII. Disputes over the Afghan/Pakistan border in the late 1940s brought unrest to that region, labeled by Pashtuns as Pashtunistan. Disputes over the region continued for close to 20 years, during which time the Afghan government modernized its army with help from the Soviet Union.

During the late 1950s, women gained considerable freedom. In the mid 1960s, some who had been dismissed by the government at the time formed the Afghan Communist Party. In 1973, a military coup by the communists, led by Daoud Kahn, overthrew the elected government, abolished the monarchy, and declared a Republic of Afghanistan. This leadership was overthrown in a bloody coup in 1978, at which time Taraki was named president and signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Forces trained by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others forced the Soviets out. Communist leaders maintained control in Kabul until 1992, when Afghanistan fell into warlordism. From this state of warlordism, the Taliban emerged in 1994 and in 1996 seized control of Afghanistan—except for the northeast region of the country, which remained in Northern Alliance control. The Taliban were known for their human rights abuses, lack of education, and strict adherence to their interpretation of Islamic law. Although the Taliban restricted the rights of many, their denial of women’s rights was the most severe. Women were denied the right to show their faces, seek medical care without a male escort, or attend school. The Taliban used “religious police” to regulate their new strict order with the use of threats, harassment, beatings, and arrest. Although the treatment of women was the most severe, men were also at risk under the Taliban regime. They could be punished for beard length, for example, and were at risk of extortion, arrest, gang rape, and abuse in detention because of their ethnicity or presumed political views. Due process was not a reality during the Taliban rule.

Afghanistan has been the target of international attention since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. Following the attacks, the U.S., Allied, and Northern Alliance (local Afghani resistance to the Taliban) toppled the Taliban. In the time that followed the Allied takeover of Afghanistan, the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) took power with Hamid Karzai as its leader. In June 2002, the AIA held a Grand Assembly to elect a president of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan (TISA), again choosing Karzai as its leader. The TISA drafted and approved a constitution in January 2004 and held its election to transition from the Transitional Authority to the Government of Afghanistan on October 9, 2004. National Assembly elections were held in 2005, and the National Assembly was inaugurated on December 19, 2005.

PEOPLE: Women are subordinate to men but have primary responsibility for the household, entertaining guests, raising children, etc. To an Afghani male, his family is private and personal, and no person, government, or social agency has the right to interfere in (or even ask about) his family members. In fact, it is a grave breach of manners to ask about a man’s women. Women interact with one another socially in village and family life. The oldest and most important women’s organization is known as the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).

Health is a key issue in Afghanistan. Adults are only expected to live into their early forties. The population is plagued with diseases such as typhoid fever, hepatitis A, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and others because of dirty water, infected food, and lack of hygiene education. There is also rampant malnutrition among children.

RELIGION: Afghanis are primarily Sunni Muslim (80%) and Shi’a Muslim (19%).

FAMILY: The patriarchal and patrilineal tribal organization promotes certain customs and values that are different from those of non-tribal societies. For example, the extended family is the important social and economic unit, not the nuclear family as in the U.S. In this extended family, the power of the eldest male (usually the grandfather) is absolute: he controls the family’s money, work, and makes all decisions regarding the family’s activities and welfare. The eldest female, usually his wife, runs the household and is in charge of the other women, including her daughters, the wives of her sons, any other wives her husband may have (Islam allows each man to have four wives, but most are too poor to afford this), and any unmarried or widowed cousins, aunts, etc. who live with the family. Each family engages in competition with other families for land, resources, wives, etc; however, they unite with related families against outsiders. Thus, a man’s first loyalty is to his extended family, then to his tribe, then to his ethnic group, and only finally to his nation.

DRESS: Women wear the chadri (or Afghan burqa), which covers a woman from head to foot with a latticed slit for the eyes. The chadri is made of cotton in shades of blue, brown, and black. The restrictions on women’s dress have relaxed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. In rural areas, women working on the land dispense with the chadri but cover their faces in the presence of a stranger. The women near Pakistan’s border wear long, full trousers, often red in color, with a loose, long-sleeved tunic dress (rather like the kameez) together with a draped headscarf. This is the basis of many of the women’s costumes, and the tunic varies in length and design. In the northern areas, striped material is used (often dyed red from madder or in shades of blue and brown). Loose, sleeveless, hip-length jackets are worn with full-length, striped coats for warmth.

Young girls go bareheaded, but women cover their heads with long headscarves, the colors varying according to the groups to which they belong. The scarves are tied round the head, leaving a long end hanging down the back that can be drawn across the face. A white headscarf signifies the married status.

Men wear a thigh-length, long-sleeved shirt that is belted at the waist, giving a skirt effect to the lower half. A sleeveless waistcoat is worn over the shirt with loose fitting white trousers. Another form of dress is the long- sleeved, ankle-length chupan. This is a long coat made of wool, often white in color, and worn by people living in mountainous regions in the winter season. The chupan is worn over a loosely fitting jacket and trousers or is wrapped around the body like a cloak. There is also a similar type of coat that is made with stripes of dark colors.

LANGUAGE: Afghanistan has two official languages: Afghan Persian (or Dari), which is spoken by 50% of the population, and Pashtu, which is spoken by 35%. Other major languages in the region include Turkic languages, such as Uzbek and Turkmen, which are spoken by 11% of the population. There are over 30 other languages, with many Afghans speaking more than one language.

NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION: Afghan culture has a particularly indirect communication style relying heavily on nonverbal cues and figurative forms of speech, where information is not explicitly stated. For Afghans, indirect communication relates closely to saving face and respecting an individual’s honor. A direct refusal for example, may be interpreted as impolite. Therefore, when conversing with Afghans you should be prepared to interpret comments and gestures beyond their face value.


  • Afghanistan is plagued by poverty, a lack of skilled and educated workers, an underdeveloped infrastructure, and widespread landmines.

  • Although the U.N. has attempted to resettle Afghan refugees who reside in Iran and Pakistan, their efforts have been only moderately successful, seeing as thousands are still residing in those border countries.

  • As of 2005, there were roughly 200,000-300,000 internally displaced persons. Many of these individuals have been displaced due to drought or political instability.